You could feel the passion in the air at the 4/14 Summit in Bangkok. Passion for “reaching the next generation.” Lots of good ideas, full of hope and promise, circulated among conference goers during three days of plenary sessions, breakout groups, and meals together.
“Holistic children’s ministry.” Talk of kids being “rooted” in faith so they can be “released” to make their own contribution to this world. A compelling vision of children as “partners in ministry,” as full members of the kingdom — not treated as second-class citizens.
And, especially among US attendees, a lot of talk about “bringing the prodigals back” — an obvious allusion to the parable of the prodigal son who forsook his family, his identity, and his calling to seek a life apart from all that.
Prayers were spoken for the “prodigal generation,” for millennials who grew up in the church and walked away. Anxiety and anguish were voiced over these prodigals who had lost their way.
I kept wondering, what if we’re the prodigals, not them?
What if it’s the church who failed them, not the other way around? What if we’re the ones who need to repent and ask forgiveness?
Much has been written about millennials leaving the church. How many and why are matters of intense inquiry. Barna says that 59% of millennials raised in the church end up walking away from institutional religion or from faith altogether. The Pew Research Center reports that 1 in 3 millennials have no religious affiliation — more than previous generations at a similar stage in their lives.
Some millennials are disillusioned by scandal and abuse in the church. Many are turned off by their church’s preoccupation with money and power. Some are simply yearning for less flash and more transcendence. Others long for justice, but their churches aren’t providing an outlet for this passion. (It’s worth noting that historically black churches, which have a much richer legacy of social justice, aren’t experiencing a similar decline).
Most millennials believe the church has become too entrenched in partisan politics. Some have left because they were forced to choose between faith and science, or between their church friends and their gay friends. The overwhelming majority of millennials perceive the church as antigay, judgmental, hypocritical, and sheltered.
None of this is new information. But all of it, I think, points to the same conclusion: we’ve lost the plot. The “main thing.” Our “first love.” We’ve lost sight of it. And it’s time we owned up to this fact.
During one of the breakout sessions, I raised the question that had been nagging at me the whole time. What if we’re the prodigals? What if we’re the ones who need to repent? The uncomfortable silence that followed was punctuated by a few murmurs of agreement.
Someone else, one of the few millennials in the room, stood up to say that if we want to regain her generation’s trust, we ought to get serious about acknowledging and prevening abuse in the church — not only sexual abuse, but any abuse of power. The breakout facilitator blinked and said, “Well, I don’t know what you mean by ‘abuse,’ ” before quickly changing the subject.
Until we understand who the “prodigal” really is, our efforts to bring millennials back to the church will fail. Only when we confess that we’re the ones who let them down, not the other way around, will we earn the right to ask them back. Until we own up to our failures — until we admit that we are no longer worthy to be called their sanctuary, their place of refuge — all our handwringing over their departure will be in vain.
The church in Ephesus was known for its diligence and perseverance. They were known for their orthodoxy. They had tested counterfeit apostles and exposed them as frauds. But in this they had failed: they had forsaken their first love. “Consider how far you have fallen,” the Spirit told them. “Repent and do the things you did at first.”
“If you do not,” the Spirit warned, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.”
Until we rediscover our “first love,” we have no right to expect millennials to come back to the church, to see ourselves as a beacon of light to a “lost” generation.